Andrew Callaghan Is Back With ‘Dear Kelly,’ a Poignant Documentary About a Pro-Trump Conservative Who Saved His Life (EXCLUSIVE)

Andrew Callaghan, the 27-year-old director and journalist known for his popular Channel 5 YouTube videos, is back with his most intimate project yet: “Dear Kelly.”

The documentary is Callaghan’s first major project since his directorial debut “This Place Rules,” which premiered on HBO in 2022. It also marks his return to feature filmmaking since he paused his career in light of sexual misconduct allegations in early 2023. After apologizing for his past behavior, Callaghan went on hiatus, began attending therapy and completed a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program. Now, he’s on tour showcasing “Dear Kelly” to fans across the country and plans to distribute it independently later this year.

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“Dear Kelly” originated at a 2021 White Lives Matter rally in Huntington Beach, Calif., when Callaghan met a pro-Trump protester who called himself Kelly J. Patriot (real name: Kelly Johnson). In his man-on-the-street style, Callaghan interviewed Johnson for one of his Channel 5 videos. In a memorably bizarre segment, Johnson alluded to being at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, peddled conspiracy theories about Kobe Bryant being assassinated and was arrested for waving around a flagpole during the protest.

However, one particularly odd moment during the interview stuck out to Callaghan: Johnson claimed a man named Bill Joiner stole his home using falsified legal documents. So, Callaghan decided to dig deeper. He set up a second interview with Johnson and learned that he was a former lawyer and father of three who applied for a $100,000 loan from Joiner’s company years ago. Johnson alleged that Joiner falsified the paperwork and sent a default notice that led to Johnson’s family being evicted from their multimillion-dollar home. Johnson has never met Joiner face-to-face, but he’s since led a private crusade against the financier and blames him for ruining his life.

In “Dear Kelly,” Callaghan investigates what really happened between Johnson and Joiner. The filmmaker goes to creative lengths to unmask Joiner, including staking out his building in ghillie suits with Johnson. He interviews Johnson’s children and ex-wife to find out how a typical family man turned into an obsessive conservative who protests against Planned Parenthood and Antifa. Throughout the course of the doc, Callaghan develops a close relationship with Johnson and uncovers the twisty truth behind his “stolen” home. By the end, he also reveals that an out-of-the-blue call from Johnson may have saved Callaghan’s own life.

During an emotional family intervention, Callaghan plays a voicemail that Johnson had left for him amid the controversy surrounding Callaghan’s sexual misconduct allegations. Callaghan reveals in the film that he was researching how to commit suicide when Johnson messaged him about staying strong and getting up when you’re knocked down.

“It definitely played a big role in saving my life,” Callaghan tells Variety. “At the time, my personal support system had sort of evaporated. He was one of the people who was there to check up on me and ask how I was doing, and that was enough for me to realize, ‘Okay, keep working.'”

And while Callahan is “not quite ready to speak about that period of time” publicly yet, he says “there will be a time and place for it.”

“I didn’t want to include too much of my personal experience in this film,” Callaghan says. “It’s a little bit alluded to, but I didn’t want to put too much to where it was taking away from Kelly’s story. But there definitely will be a time when I speak more openly about the hiatus and what I experienced. For now, I’m just focusing on working.”

After his nine-month hiatus, Callaghan returned to YouTube with longer, more documentary-style videos last fall. Each Channel 5 video regularly receives millions of views, with his most popular projects focusing on drug addiction in San Francisco, Las Vegas’ homeless population living in underground tunnels and a group of carjacking teens in Connecticut known as the Kia Boyz.

“I take my job a lot more seriously now,” Callaghan says. “What do I really love doing? What do I feel like I was put on Earth to do? Not to get rich, not to make blockbuster Hollywood movies, but just to continue doing journalism. This is a movie where I felt like, ‘I’m gonna make this because I care about this. I think this can benefit the world.’ I think a lot of people have a Kelly in their family and don’t know what to do. This film might not give you the solution, but it could give you a place to start.”

While “This Place Rules” premiered on HBO and streamed on Max, “Dear Kelly” is a fully independent Channel 5 feature. Callaghan plans to make it available to rent later this year then shop it to a larger platform for syndication.

“We finished this movie literally 30 minutes before tour started,” he says. “Our first day in Atlanta, we made the export on the computer right before, so it’s been cool to circumnavigate the typical Hollywood post-production process and give it straight to the fans. People love it. I’ve never seen somebody cry watching a Channel 5 video before, and to see tears is just crazy. I didn’t know that I was capable of creating that range of emotion.”

Callaghan has been tinkering with the final cut of the movie after each tour screening and asking the packed crowds what should be added or removed. He currently estimates “Dear Kelly” — which filmed its last scene in late May — is about 85% finished and still needs an audio mix, color pass and animations added before it’s finally done.

The director still keeps in touch with Johnson, but the namesake of the documentary hasn’t seen the film yet. Also, he and Callaghan still haven’t met Joiner — who is now suing the “Dear Kelly” team.

“We released a trailer on our Instagram and YouTube. He misinterpreted the trailer. He has the wrong idea about what the film is,” Callaghan says. “He filed a lawsuit against me and everybody who filmed because he seems to think that we are adopting Kelly’s grievances and narrative, which we are not. Hopefully when he sees the film, it can be resolved. I don’t think he’s that unreasonable of a guy. I just think he has the wrong idea, which is unfortunate.”

What started as a wild goose chase to uncover the person who allegedly stole Johnson’s home ended up being an in-depth character study of a man driven to far-right politics after personal tragedy. “Dear Kelly” closes with a full-circle look at where Johnson is now and the impact he’s left on his family. Like any Channel 5 video, there are plenty of awkward interview moments, freestyle raps and colorful characters — but this one may leave viewers shedding a few tears.

“The film was never about de-radicalizing him or keeping him away from politics,” Callaghan says. “It was about helping him prioritize his family over political obsession. That’s the main thing, just shifting those roles. But it seems like he’s drifted away from his family a bit and he’s less present than ever. Maybe this film might be a part of his recovery, because it will help him see things from a bird’s eye view. Sometimes it’s hard to see how you’re acting when you’re deep in your own shame cycle, like he is.”

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